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Second-Class Citizenship

Juan Gonzalez

In his State of the Union address, President Bush asked Congress to reform U.S. immigration laws to reflect our values and benefit our economy.” But what he calls a new guest worker program, which matches willing foreign workers with willing employers when no Americans can be found to fill the job,” is a scam Latinos know all too well.

Welcome to Wal-Mart’s Bracero Program.

During the early 20th Century, U.S. companies routinely recruited hundreds of thousands of Mexicans for industrial jobs in the West and the Midwest. Whenever the economy soured, the migrants were rounded up and deported by the trainload. Then came the World War II Bracero Program,” a scheme to recruit Mexicans for U.S. agribusiness, which led to such terrible abuses that Lyndon Johnson mercifully ended it in 1964.

Remember when the feds accused Wal-Mart last year of illegally employing hundreds of undocumented workers as janitors? Under Bush’s plan, corporations like Wal-Mart won’t have to resort to clandestine exploitation. They’ll hire all the immigrants they want at super-low wages — and it will be legal. Should a guest worker dare demand better treatment, the corporations can simply revoke his certification, triggering immediate deportation proceedings.

It’s no secret that Hispanics comprise a huge share of the 8 million undocumented workers in this country, or that Bush needs a bigger share of the Latino vote to assure reelection. And he will spend from now until November seeking to persuade Latino voters how hard he worked to solve the immigration problem. 

But Bush’s bracero program would only create a new permanent American underclass — one with fewer rights than legal residents. Forget the hype about matching willing workers” and willing employees” for jobs Americans don’t want. Bush knows, as does the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which immediately endorsed the plan, that the best way to get an American worker to refuse a job is to offer a wage so miserable only a desperate immigrant would take it.
Juan Gonzalez is a columnist for New Yorks Daily News and In These Times. The winner of a 1998 George Polk journalism award, he is the author of Roll Down Your Window: Stories of a Forgotten America and Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America.
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